Italy’s Politics of Purgatory Won’t End Well

Mario Draghi’s arrival as prime minister will only make his country’s political problems even worse.

Mario Draghi arrives to give a speech after a meeting with the Italian president, at the Quirinal palace in Rome, on Feb. 3, 2021.
Mario Draghi arrives to give a speech after a meeting with the Italian president, at the Quirinal palace in Rome, on Feb. 3, 2021. ALESSANDRA TARANTINO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The news that Mario Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank, received a mandate on Wednesday to form Italy’s next government, was greeted with relief and even delight by international observers. Widely credited with having saved the euro in the aftermath of the 2011-12 sovereign debt crisis with his famous “whatever it takes” speech, Draghi is seen as a safe pair of hands to steer his troubled country through the multiple public health, economic, and political crises it faces.

In reality, however, Draghi’s nomination bodes very poorly for Italy’s future. His newfound power represents a political defeat for almost the entirety of Italy’s political class—with one notable, and dangerous, exception.

The most obvious loser is the largest single party in the Italian parliament: the Five Star Movement (M5S). It originally catapulted to national prominence as a reaction against the EU-backed technocratic government headed by Prime Minister Mario Monti while Draghi was still working his magic at the ECB, but now, after almost three years in power, the M5S is leaving the country pretty much where it found it: in the hands of another EU-backed technocrat and former Goldman-Sachs employee, with a very thin basis of support.

In the process, the M5S’s promise of radically transforming Italy’s political system by opening it up “like a can of tuna” has lost all credibility. The novices it brought into office were consistently outmaneuvered by more experienced professionals, until they became almost indistinguishable from the consummate politicians they were supposed to replace. The party is now scrambling to hold on to its parliamentary seats, and is likely to split over whether to support Draghi’s caretaker executive, primarily because its exponents know that a return to the ballot boxes would decimate their share of national power.

The country’s more mainstream parties also emerge defeated from this crisis, since they proved incapable of rising above their petty rivalries and short-term power-grabbing maneuvers to confront Italy’s overall predicament within the framework of ordinary parliamentary procedure.

Matteo Renzi, a formerly popular center-left prime minister who now heads a small but decisive parliamentary group with about 3 percent approval in polls, initially engineered the crisis on the grounds that “politics”—by which he meant the possibility of having a say in the government line—should not be suspended even during extraordinary times. Now, he is bound to have an even more marginal role in a government whose whole raison d’être is setting politics aside to deal with the urgent problems at hand.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte still enjoys widespread popularity for having secured an unprecedented aid package from the European Union in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but he botched his response to Renzi’s ambush. He handed in his resignation on the ill-conceived expectation of being able to form an alternative majority relying on support from other center-left and center-right parties, as well as the Five Star Movement. This proved unworkable and Conte is now likely to remain empty-handed before having even begun to implement the aid program that secured his popular support.

Finally, even the supposed forces of order and stability—such as the President of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella, and Draghi himself—are weakened by this outcome. The reason is that Draghi’s government will be constitutionally required to obtain majority support in parliament. This means that none of the petty rivalries and political disagreements that led to the present crisis are going away. Much of Draghi’s political capital will therefore have to be spent in keeping together a weak and internally fractious coalition, while remaining at the mercy of the interlocking veto threats of the parties that compose it. This is hardly a recipe for institutional stability and good governance.

Draghi’s main asset is the large influx of cash that is about to arrive in the form of the EU’s post-COVID recovery aid package. This means that his policy agenda will not have to follow the widely reviled austerity rulebook previously applied by Mario Monti, which Draghi himself helped draft as head of the ECB. But deciding how to spend the incoming resources might be as much a cause of controversy as austerity, since everyone is going to want a piece of the pie.

The trenches of the Italian parliament may prove more difficult for Draghi to navigate than the polished corridors of the European Central Bank. His medium-term ambition is widely believed to be to replace Mattarella as Italy’s president—a post that’s up for renewal within a year, and for which Draghi was already considered a leading candidate. But standing between him and that goal are many difficult months of political drudgery, from which he is unlikely to emerge unscathed.

The only true beneficiary of the present crisis is the leader of the extreme right anti-establishment Lega, Matteo Salvini. For the time being, he has offered qualified support to Draghi’s nascent executive, thereby making himself essential to its future survival. However, Salvini has also signaled that he only takes this to be a temporary arrangement, intended to confront the most pressing aspects of the present crisis, and then give way to anticipated elections in 2022. All polls show that, if this were to happen, his party would do very well, given the sorry show put up by the other political forces in past weeks.

The most likely immediate scenario, therefore, is a weak and short-lived government, forced to remain within the narrow confines of what a vast array of parties can agree to. After that, a purely far-right coalition, with Salvini at the helm, and the ancillary support of Giorgia Meloni’s neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia and Silvio Berlusconi’s revitalized Forza Italia.

This shows that Italy remains trapped within the narrative that has ensnared European politics since the 2008-2011 economic crisis: that populism and technocracy are the only two available modes of contemporary political action. While usually held to be at odds with one another, populism and technocracy have already amply demonstrated that they actually feed into one another, leading to a constant oscillation—and sometimes even a mixture—between them, not just in Italy but in many other advanced western democracies such as Greece, Spain, France, the United Kingdom, and arguably also the United States.

In light of these experiences, the world should be well past the illusion that there can be an easy technocratic fix for the deep crisis of political representation, of which contemporary populism is merely one expression. Populism and technocracy are two sides of the same coin, which can only be confronted together by revitalizing the mechanisms of democratic representation that have just failed so spectacularly in Italy. Mario Draghi’s technocratic executive will therefore not be the widely touted solution to Italy’s political woes, but is rather a further symptom of its continued incapacity to address them.

Carlo Invernizzi Accetti is Associate Professor of political science at the City University of New York, City College.

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